The body in charge of Irish foxhunting is investigating claims that a fox was dug out of its den, tied up and then fed alive to hounds during a top hunt in Westmeath.
The Irish Masters' of Foxhounds Association (IMFHA) has confirmed it is investigating the alleged barbaric incident which is said to have taken place during a Westmeath Hunt meet near Walderstown, Co Westmeath, on November 14.
Such activity is strictly prohibited under the Code of Conduct drawn up by the Irish Hunting Association and sanctioned by the Department of Agriculture and Food. Rule seven states: "In no circumstances will a live fox which has been dug out be thrown to the hounds."
A department spokesman confirmed they had been informed of the investigation and were monitoring the situation. The Westmeath Hunt, founded in 1854, is regarded as one of the country's most prominent hunts.
"It's very early days as yet," said Brian Munn, IMFHA spokesman. "We heard the rumour 48 hours ago. My colleagues have spoken to eyewitnesses and those people have denied that that happened. We have got an explanation but I am very loathe to say too much at this stage.
"Let's be clear about this -- it is very important for us that this sort of thing does not happen. We will be relieved if we discover that this is some kind of malicious rumour. At the same time, if it is true, heads will roll because we cannot have that in hunting -- it will destroy us. People would have to be barred from hunting. We would be anxious to put a message out that this is unacceptable and will not happen again. Ultimately, masters take responsibility."
An employee of the hunt, Noel Murphy, denied the allegations. "It is completely untrue. We have acted within the legislation that we have. The hounds caught the fox in the earth and when it was brought up it was dead. We're very outraged with this allegation. There are jobs on the line because of this allegation. We are taking this very seriously. The IMFHA are in constant contact with us about this."
He added: "There is no evidence of this happening, there is no photograph."
But according to a taped conversation with anti-hunting lobbyist Tom Hardiman, the landowner, Michael Murray, who was present during this part of the hunt said he saw incidences of animal cruelty.
"They tied the rope to his leg and pulled him out of the burrow and fed him straight to the dogs. They ate the fox alive. I didn't realise that they were going to do that."
When contacted by the Irish Independent yesterday, Mr Murray said he had no comment to make. "I did tell people about it, but at the moment I am making no comment."
When asked whether he saw a live fox being dug out of a hole and fed to the dogs he said: "At the moment I am making no comment on it. I like foxhunting and have nothing against it. "
Mr Hardiman of the Ban Bloodsports pressure group said. "They say they have a code of practice but they are breaking all their own rules."